Monday, October 05, 2009

Can data alone increase government transparency?

Among blogs, as well as the mainstream media, Congress generally gets all the attention, at least where policy is concerned, and I've found most food blogs to be no exception. And among the public--forget it. It's pretty clear that as little as people understand how a bill becomes a law, most people are even more clueless when it comes to what happens after a bill becomes a law.

So for us food [and other] policy wonks out there, the recent attempts by the Obama administration to open up the process to make it easier for blogs and others to follow the post-bill signing policymaking process via the Federal Register, can only help begin to expose the public and facilitate more input.

As a non-tech expert myself, I don't quite know what it means that as of today, the Federal Register is available in XML. But I do know that it has allowed for the development of a host of new websites and applications which utilize the daily updated data in the federal register to allow better tracking and communication.

One of these websites is called FedThread, and my first reaction was that it bares a striking resemblance to the way Jews traditionally study and comment on rabbinic texts, like the Talmud, comparing several annotated versions of the text. In the latter case, this allows the text to operate almost as a living document, with controversial yet accepted differences of opinion among highly revered scholars.

More about the features of FedThread from the site:

  • collaborative annotation: Attach a note to any paragraph of the Federal Register; start a conversation.
  • advanced search: Search the Federal Register back to 2000 on full text, by date, agency, and other fields.
  • customized feeds: Turn any search into an RSS or email feed, which will send you any new items that match the search query.

While I haven't seen it in action yet, the site seems like it will allow individual register notices to read like a cross between a bulletin board and a Wikipedia entry, and may present an opportunity for government regulators to get feedback from the public in real time.

Whether they will actually do that, and whether there are concerns that people will post to the site instead of submitting actual comments to the relevant agency, remains to be seen. The site explicitly states that posting comments on FedThread does not substitute for sending in an official public comment, and government regulators are under no obligation to read or take note of comments posted on FedThread.

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